How Joe Burrow's Football I.Q. Is Rooted In Defense

Joe Burrow on the move.
Joe Burrow on the move.

Of course Jimmy Burrow recognized that the Jaguars had lined up for that zero blitz in the final seconds last Thursday night. The play happened to unfold on his side of the Paul Brown Stadium stands, so he knew what his youngest child faced as the clock blinked to another fast and furious finish.

"I can see that," Jimmy Burrow says. "I was in a press box for about 30 years. I've got a pretty good handle what's happening on the field."

Which pretty much explains why Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow read the deadly blitz so fast and well that he turned doom into boom when he zipped a 25-yard answer to tight end C.J. Uzomah to set up a win at the gun.

And now the buzz is about Burrow's mind instead of his knee. How for the second time in 18 days in his 14th NFL start the precocious 24-year-old went to the line of scrimmage in the last gasps of a game like some craggy, grizzled vet crawling out of an NFL Network video vault and checked the Bengals into victory.

Maybe that's how you get to be an offensive mind. One of the reasons they made him the quarterback in third grade when the fourth-grade quarterback moved away is because he was the son of a coach. Maybe you become an offensive savant when you grow up in a house where your dad is the defensive coordinator for the college around the corner.

"Why?" Jimmy Burrow asks rhetorically about the seemingly innate football knowledge. "He saw so many games over the years. I think that was it more than anything … growing up, his coaches did a good job with him and I think his ability to know enough about it that if he saw something he could retain it . He may have heard me talking about Cover Two over the years so that when he saw it he could somehow correlate that to something I maybe said."

But …

"Who knows?" Coach Burrow wonders of the origin of his offspring's Football IQ.

All the world knows is he's got it. But it wasn't exactly because of nightly sessions with father and son grinding Ohio University 16 mm film in the basement of their Athens home.

For one thing, both of them had laptops and they could sit in the clear light of the living room and watch. And for another, Jimmy Burrow didn't have a whole hell of a lot of time. Sunday, Monday and Tuesday nights were consumed game planning for the next Bobcats' opponent. Wednesday and Thursdays were a little lighter and Jimmy might say to Joey earlier in the week, "When I come home Wednesday night, do you want to watch your game?"

"It wasn't every week. It wasn't coach and player. I didn't want him not to like it," Jimmy Burrow says. "I couldn't make it something he would dread. Just kind of a fun dad-son time to watch some film."

It wasn't press-box complicated in the living room once the sixth-grader got to high school. Jimmy Burrow might casually ask why Joe threw that one or maybe suggest this particular throw was good against that specific defense. It was more father-and-son than coach-to-helmet.

"I wouldn't say we grinded away on coverages," Jimmy Burrow says. "Once he got into high school, sometimes during the week we'd look at his film or opponent film. Probably not as much as one would think. Anytime we did, he certainly soaked it up and learned from it."

There was always a lot of film on Joey, that's for sure, all the way back to third through sixth grade. When he began playing tackle in third grade, his league played Sundays at Peden Field, home of the Bobcats, where Jimmy Burrow's office overlooked the action. Coach Burrow could see snatches of the games, but he couldn't leave on the biggest game planning day of the week. So he paid an intern or one of the grad assistants to film the game for him and put it on his laptop.

"Just like filming our games," Jimmy Burrow says. "Real good footage."

And third grade is back when Joe Burrow made his first check, more than 15 years before he turned zero into plus-25. From what Jimmy remembers, when the nose guard left the center uncovered, they gave Joey the option to tap the center on the side where he would run a quarterback sneak.

"One went for a long touchdown," Jimmy Burrow says. "They knew he was a coach's son and he would have a pretty good handle on it. Plus, they heard he was a pretty good athlete, that he played baseball. They told him, 'You're the quarterback.' I never asked him if he wanted to play quarterback. He always loved playing defense."

They say you have to know defense if you're going to master offense. Both of Joey Burrow's older brothers played defense at Nebraska. His father not only coached it, but called it. When he was a freshman at Athens there were plans to call him up for a playoff game to play defensive back until the injured player recovered. And Joe took a turn or two in the secondary in between throwing for 446 yards and six touchdowns in the state title game.

"He always loved defense. If you played it and also see it from a quarterback perspective, you kind of see them put together over the years," Jimmy Burrow says. "Knowing I was the defensive coordinator for the Bobcats and that I coached the safeties, I'm sure there was an attraction to watching the defense instead of watching the offense all the time."

When they made him the starting quarterback as a sophomore, they put Joe Burrow in a no-huddle offense. He would look to the sidelines for the plays, but they also put a lot of responsibility on him at the line of scrimmage. Not long after, Jimmy Burrow began hearing stories about how he would recognize coverages after not seeing them for weeks.

"He's just got that ability to see it and retain it," Jimmy Burrow says. "Like knowing (the Jaguars) defensive coordinator came from Baltimore and remembering they like to use that (zero) blitz."

Jimmy Burrow has to laugh. He says it was he who asked Joe most of the time, "Do you want to watch your game?"

"I would say it was pretty much me," Coach Burrow says. "I'm sure he just anticipated at some points that I was going to ask most weeks to watch. As we got into the playoffs, I do remember watching opponents more so with him. He always had a good handle on it."

Nothing new there.

"Just a combination of having a good football mind and being around it," says Jimmy Burrow, enjoying the view outside the press box.

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